Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

A Year After Her Dismissal, Union Leader Roeun Kolap Demands Justice And Reinstatement

Roeun Kolap talks during a gathering outside the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training where a petition was submitted on Labor Day on May 1, 2024. (FTUWKC)
Roeun Kolap talks during a gathering outside the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training where a petition was submitted on Labor Day on May 1, 2024. (FTUWKC)

After being elected as union president of the factory, Roeun Kolap was fired by her company on June 30, 2023. So far, it has been a year since she began seeking justice and despite the intervention of the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training, the factory has refused to reinstate her.

Kolap was fired by Shengbo Garment (Cambodia) Co Ltd located in Kampong Speu province in June 2023, just two days after becoming the factory’s union president.

Following that, she sought the ministry and the Department of Labor Dispute’s intervention, which ordered Shengbo to take Kolap back on August 15, 2023, but the company rebuffed the ministry’s directive.

She went on a solo strike to announce that Shengbo violated labor laws and to urge it to stop discriminating against unions which protected the interests of factory workers. It was in line with Cambodia’s ratification of the International Labor Organization’s Convention No. 87 and 98 on the protection of trade union rights and protests.

Meanwhile, she filed a complaint with the Kampong Speu Provincial Court to seek justice, but the trial was postponed as the judge was not well.

Discrimination against independent unions

Kolap was elected factory union president by the workers on June 28, 2023. The election was conducted in a professional manner in accordance with the procedures of the labor and union laws, with notification to the company via Cambodia Post.

However, two days later, when Kolap went to the management office to apply for leave, she was given a termination letter on the grounds that her “sewing was not good”.

According to her, the grounds for the dismissal were inconsistent with her actual work results, particularly when she received a monthly bonus for her performance like other workers, and was never reprimanded or warned.

“When I went to apply for leave, the company paid me the final month’s salary, plus 5% of the contractual salary, which came up to more than $200,” she said.

She expressed disappointment that despite the ministry’s intervention, they still refused to re-hire her and offered no reason for it.

“I think the factory discriminated [me] when I was elected union president because I’ve previously heard that this factory does not accept independent unions,” said Kolap.

Roeun Kolap’s supporters gather in front of Kampong Speu provincial court on June 12, 2024.(FTUWKC)

Seeing that the factory violated workers’ rights and discriminated against the union, she decided to file a complaint at the Kampong Speu Provincial Court for “dismissing her for no reason”.

However, her hearing scheduled on June 12, 2024, was postponed as the judge was unwell.

“The judge was sick on the day before the hearing. He should have told me not to come,” said Kolap. “I think that is an excuse. I am very upset because I expect the court to solve this case for me because I just found a new job. If I take leave often, the new factory might fire me too.” 

In February this year, over 100 garment workers at Shengbo protested, demanding the reinstatement of two workers who were fired just after they were elected as union leaders in the factory.

Short-term contracts, workers lose benefits

Chinese-owned Shengbo, which employed over 700 workers, produced women’s clothing for Spanish brand MNG and Italy’s Calliope for export to Europe. It began operation in March 2023.

Kolap joined the company on April 28, 2023, signing a limited-term contract, lasting two months which is normally renewed but was dismissed two months and two days after she was elected president of a new independent union.

She believes that the use of limited-term contracts is still common among employers as a “deterrent to unionization”, with the non-renewal of contracts  discriminating against union leaders.

“This is the problem. Workers are scared when they work in a factory with short-term contracts as they are easily at risk of being fired by the boss at any time. So, places like these are difficult for us to earn a living,” said Kolap.

She recalled that during the time she was fired, she faced serious financial problems because she was not accepted anywhere due to her background as a former union leader. As a widow with three children and with no job, life was very difficult. This made her sad and she became sick.

“I have three children, they are studying in Phnom Penh. I had a hard time, I didn’t have a job, I got sick, sometimes I cried because I didn’t know how to find a job and money for my children’s education,” said Kolap. 

Undeterred, she hopes that the ministry as well as the court will decide in her favor, order the factory to reinstate her and pay appropriate compensation.

No respect for the law

Ministry spokesperson Kata Orn said Kolap’s issue is “not a case of union discrimination” as “claimed by her” but it was about “forming a union without fulfilling the obligation of notifying the formation of a union to the company”, and “copying the ministry properly in the spirit of the law on unions”.

“The ministry’s Labor Dispute Resolution Department coordinated a reconciliation [between the company and Kolap],” he said, adding that the outcome was not fruitful. As a result, Kolap filed a complaint at the Kampong Speu court and the case is under the jurisdiction of the court now.

On Wednesday, civil society groups, including unions, union federations and non-governmental organizations, deeply regretted Shengbo’s alleged illegal dismissal of Kolap. They viewed the union leader’s removal as a serious violation of the right to freedom of association and to protect the rights of legitimate workers in the workplace.

Touch Seur, president of the Federation of Free Trade Unions of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTUWKC) told CamboJA News that if Kolap had not formed a union, the factory would not have fired her.

“We observed that if the union was a union of the factory, they would protect their side, but if it is an independent union, they discriminate.” 

Touch Seur expects the court to render her justice, so that she can return to work at Shengbo factory, adding that the owner did not respect the labor law and discriminated against the union.

When contacted, Am Mony, former administration director of Shengbo, said he stopped working in the factory five months ago, and that he does not have any connection with the company regarding this issue.

Peng Siphorn, Kampong Speu provincial court spokesperson, did not respond to CamboJA News when contacted via phone.